What You Should Think About Satan

October 31, 2007

“I do not fear Satan half so much as I fear those who fear him.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

As the nation’s very young go from door to door in search of candy and the nation’s young-at-heart venture off to costume parties, it seems to me an opportune moment to discuss the subject of my favorite Rolling Stones song. Satan has a curious place in American culture. Never more than a minor player in Christian scripture, some sects have transformed him into an immensely powerful and important figure just short of being God’s equal in cosmic stature.

It seems that cultural austerity outside of church was not enough for the Puritans — establishing stronger contrast between the mundane and sacred demanded particular intensity from religious services. They incorporated the drama of fire and brimstone into their routine existence. Perhaps some audiences do find the hyperbole of devil-obsessed preaching more gripping than sermons about peace and love. Yet there is a downside to dwelling on theological evil. It all too often provides cover for actual evil to be done in the world.

Any sensible perspective on some of America’s earliest colonial communities makes it easy to see that professional witch hunters, with their zeal for torture and execution, were a real blight on society. Reasonable people should not need be told that witchcraft was a fiction spawned by the press of heavy stones or the touch of hot irons rather than a reality generated by broomstick-riding bringers of pestilence. Pagan traditions may be undergoing some resurgence in modern times, but earnest believers in practical wizardry are just as ridiculous as the devout Christian convinced his mojo would enable him to walk on water.

Yet the blight of Puritanical extremism continues to leave marks on modern American culture. Among the worst of these marks is the continued popularity in some sects of religious teachings that villanize other people. Links between Lucifer and Satan have much more to do with interpretations of scripture than any content therein. However, the tale of Lucifer holds that the fallen angel suffered after claiming the power of God for himself. Is there no lesson here for mortals who presume to judge the saved and the damned by their own haughty sermons?

Clearly that lesson exists, yet it is equally clear that this lesson is widely ignored in many circles. Ancient literature is largely ambiguous about subjects like premarital sex, homosexuality, and the sanctity of human zygotes. Not only have preachers and their flocks presumed to have absolute answers about matters like this, many go the extra mile to proclaim they have knowledge of who surely must be damned to Hell. In a very real way they presume to wield power that their own most sacred texts specify in no uncertain terms should be the domain of God alone.

It seems in faith, as with politics, all too often engaging dark human emotions enables leaders to cultivate popularity that they could not find by relying on honest rational discourse. Those of us who do not follow the teachings of any organized faith may find it odd to suggest religious activity should be more rational. Yet the only real difference between talking about faith and talking about any other subject is that faith is bounded by assumptions that are inherently beyond the scope of empirical verification. Within those bounds, surely there is value in remaining rational. After all, no theists deny that reason and related faculties are God-given gifts, but any particular institutional teaching or interpretation of scripture is clearly the product of mortal efforts.

The same is true of many other belief systems that feature some being to serve as the primary focus of evil. Having similar roots in religious history, Islam and Christianity also have strikingly parallel narratives on many subjects. Shaitan is not exactly a fallen angel, but he was condemned for his pride in the face of the supreme being. In Islam, he serves as an agent of the temptation to stray from whatever path is thought to be pleasing to Allah.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics do not approve of bombing crowded civilian markets. Yet in terrorist camps and a few other dark places, some people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. An overwhelming majority of Christian clerics do not approve of bombs exploding in civilian markets either. Yet in some dark places, people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. The common thread begins by linking other human beings with the Devil, then asserting a duty of mortals to carry out judgements by playing God.

“God is love” is another common thread that runs through monotheistic traditions. In fact, it is said of many faiths that their essence could be distilled to that single sentence. Though he is merely a minor character various scriptures, Satan becomes prominent wherever clerical leaders make the choice to abandon a message of love and seek personal popularity by advancing a message of hate. Those who call for their followers to abandon compassion, mercy, and humility have elected to advance a message that cannot credibly be associated with the deity they claim to revere.

In some ways it seems that the root of much evil is the predisposition of some groups to characterize other groups as evil. Hatred is by nature unreasoning, but many times it is not spontaneous either. It can be cultivated, and this cultivation is a skill unto itself. The pages of history are littered with gratuitously bloody wars, brutally oppressive regimes, and campaigns of terror all driven by divisive beliefs that characterize other ethnicities, faiths, or nations as fit targets for violence in light of their evil natures.

No ethnicity is predominantly evil. No nation is predominantly evil. Not even any faith of significance is predominantly evil. There is real evil in the world, and often it is in the actions of those inspired by arrogant leaders commanding others to stamp out what they have judged to be evil. Our laws, and even our armies, may rightly be put to use preventing harm or neutralizing threats posed by those who do harm. Given a rational fact-based approach to assessing threats, exercise of power in this manner will tend to make the world a better place.

To the degree that our laws or our armies are put to use fighting evil, we run a very real risk of perpetrating very real evil. Whether you look to one of the world’s most sacred texts for personal guidance or you look at them all as collections of stories infused with ancient wisdom, there is something to learn from studying Satan. Those ancient stories speak pointedly to the folly of presuming mere mortals are fit to substitute their judgement for divine judgement. Even if taken only as metaphor, it is clear that a Hell on Earth tends to be the consequence of framing the exercises of power as some sort of quest to smite evil.

I believe there is also something to be learned from studying how mere mortals invoke Satan and related concepts in their teachings. If you do practice a faith, and along the way you seek wisdom from clerics involved with that faith, pay careful attention to the frequency and context of their talk about the Devil. If that theme is common, if it is used as a means to inflame hatred, if the echoes of it drown out appeals to peace or tolerance or love . . . then you would do well to look elsewhere for wisdom.

One can only speak generally when talking about an entire large group of people. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on making other human beings suffer. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on killing other human beings. I am in no position to prove to theists that the Devil does not exist. Yet I do know, as history proves with relentless consistency, that a fixation on attacking others labeled as “evil” brings much pointless killing and hatred into the world. If Satan does indeed exist, he can only smile at each instance when a preacher demands the faithful take it upon themselves to judge in the name of the divine, then act against others based on those judgements.